Miami Scientists Are Building Smartphones That Can Diagnose Cancer

Oct 21, 2014

Dr. Obdulio Piloto in the lab.
Credit Entopsis / Courtesy

The next stage of smartphone evolution, portable disease diagnostics, is headquartered on the edge of Overtown and Allapattah.

A Cuban-American doctor has brought his lab to the University of Miami’s Life Science and Technology Park where he’s developing a proprietary apparatus on the cutting edge of nanotechnology.

With his lab, Entopsis, Dr. Obdulio Piloto aims to one day provide low-cost, efficient and accurate testing for any disease using any liquid sample anywhere in the world, no doctor needed.

The device is called a Nutec. It’s about the size of a piece of chewing gum and looks like a microscope slide. Right now, Piloto makes 100 per day in his lab, Entopsis.

"[The Nutec] looks like a simple piece of glass, but it's very complicated at the molecular level," Piloto says.

Each Nutec is covered in 50-500 tiny crater-like dots, which in turn are full of pockets of varying shapes and sizes, millions of them. When a liquid -- like spit, blood, or urine -- is added to the slide, it forms colors and patterns based on how its molecules bind to the slide’s pockets.

The company envisions a massive machine-intelligent health cloud, where an algorithm for their Nutec compares test results with positive and negative samples in its library, and returns a confidence rating such as “It is 87-percent likely you have pancreatic cancer.”

Entopsis' Nutec is engraved with hundreds of craters that can collect and analyze samples of bodily fluids.
Credit Entopsis / Courtesy

According to Piloto, “The algorithm, the analysis, and extraction are complete. We just need to create an attractive, easy to use user interface.”

Piloto studied at Stanford and Cornell universities, and met his business partner, Ian Cheong, while attending Johns Hopkins Medical School. They decided to base Entopsis in Miami due to affordable lab space and proximity to Latin American and European Markets. 

Bio-sensors are big business. Today, a wristband tells your phone if your blood pressure is high. Tomorrow it will text your doctor, notify your insurance, and call an ambulance.

Piloto and Cheong are not the only ones in Miami doing this. Dr. Chenzhong Li, a professor of biomedical engineering at Florida International University, has been developing the science and patents for similar work since 2006.

No doctor required: Dr. Piloto's Entopsis aims to provide low-cost health care and diagnoses via smartphone technology.

Li works and teaches out of FIU’s Motorola Nanofabrication Center of Advanced Materials Engineering Research Institute. One of his specialties is developing portable disease identifiers that anyone can use.

He says, "This is not a movie or made up. It's based on portable and wearable devices that use wireless communication to transmit health data."

Li says there is a point of contention over this type of work in the medical community at large.

"This technology is kind of contradictory to disease testing in the hospital. They want you to stay there,” he says. “But as engineers, we want to bring the technology to society, to regular people. Whenever I go to a conference there's always a debate between us and the clinical lab doctors, but now we're getting more respectable."

Dr. Pedro J. Greer, a MacArthur fellow and Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, says it's not that simple: "How would you like to sit in front of a computer that tells you 'You test positive for cancer. Next patient.’ "

A molecular-level shot of Entopsis' Nutec.
Credit Entopsis / Courtesy

"Science is one thing," he continues. "But you can't isolate it from social science. You don't want a machine to tell you you have cancer. It should be someone you trust and have confidence in."

But the march of technology continues. In January 2015, the Society of Personalized Nanomedicine will host its second symposium at FIU, catering to an international crowd of researchers, entrepreneurs and the business community.

Ultimately Greer welcomes the future, though he insists it be tempered with Hippocratic conviction.

"It's nice to be a center of biotechnology. And it's a wonderful business opportunity. But it has to be blended into the world of medicine, where we don't just diagnose, and cure, but improve the quality of life of our patients, and answer their questions,” he says. “There has to be human contact.”